Acclaimed filmmaker, CT native’s documentary on COVID-19 shortlisted for Oscars

DARIEN — In March 2020, former Darien resident and award-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman set out to do what seemed impossible: document the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic in one of the hardest-hit hospitals in New York City.

The result is “The First Wave,” a critically acclaimed documentary produced through National Geographic that is billed as a “testament to the human spirit.” The film is now shortlisted as a nominee in the Best Feature Documentary category in the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, scheduled to be held March 27.

Now based in New York City, Heineman’s family relocated to Darien when he was 5; he attended nearby New Canaan Country School and Brunswick Academy in Greenwich, playing lacrosse and soccer.

He said he did not grow up wanting to be a filmmaker, but his parents’ work as a journalist and a lawyer were instrumental in shaping Heineman’s worldview early on in his life.

“I'm extraordinarily grateful to my parents for instilling a curiosity about the world at a very young age,” Heineman said. “I am also very grateful to have grown up where I grew up. But as I became a conscientious teenager and then adult, I became more and more curious about the world at large.”

That curiosity led Heineman first to Dartmouth College, where he said he studied history and learned to view the world analytically.

After college, Heineman applied for the nonprofit program Teach for America. He was rejected.

“Most people say that they didn't know you could get rejected from Teach for America. But I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.

Without any other clear plans post-college, Heineman and a few friends raised some money, bought a video camera and set out on a cross-country adventure, hoping to create a “kaleidoscopic look” at youth culture in America. In the process, Heineman and his friends interviewed everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to drug dealers to cancer researchers — and a love for documentary film-making was born, he said.

“That three-month journey really became my film school,” Heineman said. “There's a very distinct moment in New Orleans, three months after Hurricane Katrina, following a resident of the Ninth Ward back to his house for the first time. I just thought, ‘What a privilege it was to tell stories through the lens of a camera.’ I really always look back at the moment, where I sort of looked in the mirror and said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

Heineman is already an established documentary filmmaker, with several prior documentaries and movies garnering him Oscar and Emmy nominations, among other awards.

He said he never starts films with any clear game plan in mind. Most are inspired by a “desire to put a human face to a topic” — which he has done with documentaries about the drug war in Mexico, journalists and terrorist groups in Syria and human trafficking.

Yet he deems “The First Wave” the hardest film he has ever made. It’s also the one of which he said he is most proud.

“The First Wave” itself draws on raw footage Heineman and a crew captured over months of 16- to 18-hour workdays, setting up in the conference room of the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens.

The film offers an unprecedented, harrowing look inside the hospital’s intensive-care units at a time when New York City had become an epicenter for a virus that quickly spun out of control.

Using a connection from a prior project to gain permission to film, Heineman said the hospital initially allowed his crew to focus only on health care workers before opening the door to film the patients and their families as they dealt with the ravages of COVID-19.

“It wasn't how we got here or who's at fault — I very much wanted to take the politics out of it, and follow individual stories,” Heineman said. “I think one of the greatest tragedies of COVID is how politicized it became and even at that point was becoming. ... There’s an alternate universe in which COVID could‘ve brought our country together. But instead, it fractured an already-fractured country, and that was really, really sad. So I just wanted to highlight the human beings at the center of it.”

Released in fall 2021, the film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from film critics and audiences.

Witnessing the reaction to the film’s events nearly two years later has been “extraordinarily emotional” — and also cathartic, Heineman said.

“The overarching feeling that we had every single day was just inspired ... by the fortitude, by the love, by the humanity that we witnessed every single day,” he said. “I didn't go to bed at night feeling necessarily depressed about the state of the world, although there were many things to be scared about or sad about. I went to bed at night feeling very optimistic about these incredible people that we were documenting.”